Monday, April 30, 2007

Studio Shots

Here are the studion photos of the new Rodback Rocker in cherry with white oak spindles and a butternut seat. You can see it in person at the Peter Valley Craft Gallery starting Sunday May 6th through June 3rd. I will be at the opening of the show at 3:30 on Sunday May 6th. The show is entitled the Delaware Highland Seven and features 6 other regional craftspeople and artists in various mediums. You can find more information at

Below you can see the studio set up at Dana Dukes studio in Roscoe, New York. Dana is a real asset to the arts community up here. He does a great job bringing out the best in the work that he photographs. As you can see, it isn't just point and shoot. Correct lighting to get a range of information that the camera can read is a real skill. Even though I have a degree in Photography, I rely on Dana's years of studio experience to light the chairs. He is kind enough to take my input on the angles and details that I want. It is important not just to take a mugshot of the piece. Chairs are full of volume and moving around them and viewing them from all angles is vital to finding the ones that have the best balance of information, clarity and gesture. Often, after having the work photographed, I see new things in the piece that spur me on to make new work. No piece is complete until I see it through Dana's lens.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Heading Home

Here you see Al and Bill standing by the chair that Al made this week. We had already packed up Bills for shipping back to California before we remembered to take a group shot! I hope that when I am seventy that I am still seeking knowledge and working as hard as these guys.
Below, Al is using a heat gun to alter the bend in the hand of his armbow. Heat bends wood. I know this sounds simple but it reveals an important truth. One reason for using green wood and steam to bend wood is because it transfers the heat throughout the piece efficiently without breaking down the fibers. It is the heat that is most important. After the workpiece is dried and set, it is still adjustable by gently and slowly heating the area you wish to bend and then letting it cool in the correct or slightly overcorrected position. Just about any piece of dried wood that is flexible and follows the fibers can be permanently bent this way. Localizing the heat is crucial to getting the wood up to temperature. It is important to hold the heat gun far enough away from the workpiece (about 1 1/2") and to keep it moving to avoid scorching the wood and encouraging a break. Experimentation will show the limitations of this technique. A word about safety, I consider the heat gun to be the most dangerous tool in the shop, it is very easy get burned or to start a fire. Don't make me show you the scar!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Nearing the End

Here is a photo of Al with his nearly completed chair. Both Al and Bill have done a fine job and should handily finish their chairs tommorrow. I've had a lot of great conversations with Al about the techniques that he has used in the past to achieve his impressive results. He and I do things very differently, as one would expect. David Pye points out in his book The Nature and Art of Workmanship, that a drawing of a piece given to two different craftsmen will yield two different products. The subtle shift in priorities and techniques can yield very telling results. It is in these differences that we see ourselves.
Most of the time, I consider my relationship to my process and the tools that I use as the main focus in my work. The pieces that I make leave the shop and I am left with the decision of what to do next and how to do it. After a while, the actual furniture feels like a byproduct of my attempts to spend my time in a more fulfilling way. With this in mind, techniques that are laborious or finicky give way to methods that are efficient and fun. As much as any aesthetic choices, this need dictates the results of my labor. Working with other craftsmen has helped me to understand this to a much greater extent. Thanks to you all.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

New Rocker

Here is a photo of the new rodback rocker with it's armchair cousin. There are a few differences that rockers require such as a shallower seat and different leg angles. This rocker is a chair that I have wanted to build for some time. It will be on display at the Peters Valley Craft Center for the month of May and then available for sale at the Penland School of Crafts benefit auction in August. I will post some studio photos of it next week. My exploration of the rodback form is keeping my interest and I hope to find the time to continue its development. On another note, I spoke with Nick at the TImbersmith this afternoon. Nick supplies my pine seats and has a great stock of seat blanks available. I have had a lot of students from out west who don't have access to white pine and it's raised my awareness of the resources that I take for granted. You can reach Nick at or (315)328-5381. I have had great experiences personally with Nick and am happy to spread the word about his stock. He is also exploring selling riven spindle and bending stock, so for all of you who aren't willing to move to my neck of the woods, give him a call and get to work!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Drawknives, The Other Half

By the other half, I am, of course, referring to the back. To get a sharp edge on any piece of metal, both surfaces must be properly shaped and polished. There are a couple of different ways to flatten the back of a drawknife depending on whether it will be used bevel up or down. Anytime that a tool is perfectly flat (as opposed to a gently rounded) it will dig into the wood and will be difficult to control. To relieve this problem, all you need is a gentle rounding of the surface. If the tool is going to be used solely with the bevel down, the back surface can be flattened like a chisel. Easier said than done! In the photo above, you can see that I use a small grinding wheel to "hollow grind" the back of a blade to make the flattening easier. I alternate between stoning the back and grinding away the flat spots that appear, avoiding grinding the edge. By keeping the back of a bevel down knife flat, you make sharpening more certain, however, I use most of my blade bevel up, which means that I must gently round the back. To do so, I flatten the back just as I would for a bevel down blade. At the end of the process, I strop both the back and the bevel with a leather strop on a block of wood. I charge the strop with green honing compound. Most importantly, when I strop, I try to maintain the proper geometry just like with the stones. Any rounding will occur because of the deflection of the leather, and it is plenty. I don't spend huge amounts of time trying to perfect my blades, instead, each time that I grind and hone, I try to improve it. Experimentation is key to getting the geometry and results that work best for you. Remember to test whatever process you come up with by shaving some softwood endgrain, it will tell you volumes about what you've actually achieved.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Bill and Al

This week I am working with Bill Patakas and Al Steunenberg. They are a couple of rowdy oral surgeons from California. Bill came last year and made a continuous arm and this year will be making it in rocker form (a very popular chair). Al will be making the continuous arm with baluster turnings. Neither of these guys live in a region with a good green wood supply, their eyes lit up when they say my new white oak log! Yesterday they assured me that shaving wood can be more daunting than shaving a human jaw. If you take too much off of a jaw, there's a chance that it'll grow back! I'll post their progress this week. Al told me that he didn't know what I meant by a pillow block in my drawknife grinding post. A pillow block is a free standing drive shaft that you can hook up to any motor with a belt to run grinding or buffing wheels. Because the motor is not between the wheels, it doesn't get in the way while grinding large tools like drawknifes. If all that you have is a standard grinder, try using a wheel truing device to put a bevel on the outer corner of the wheel. This will allow you to use it at an angle that doesn't run into the motor. Good luck

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Buying Wood

This is the yard at Hofer Log and Lumber near Jeffersonville NY. The owner, Matt Hofer, is a second generation sawyer and log wholesaler. He moves logs by the truckload, and in my case one at time. I have been fortunate enough to have Matt as a resource for the last seven years. He knows what I need and alerts me when something special comes along. He sawed the timbers for my barn as well as all of the wide plank hemlock flooring for my house. Fostering a good relationship with a sawyer can be key to making greenwood chairs. I think that the key to dealing with sawyers is realizing that there are really just two ways for them to see you, either as a charming oddity or a time sucking pain. Obviously, you don't want to be the latter. In approaching a sawyer, it's a good idea to bring along some images of what you plan to make with the log. Log workers are just like the rest of us, they spend a great deal of time in the beginning or middle of a process and rarely get to see the final product. I think that they enjoy dealing with a grateful craftsman and will often work diligently to help you out. I know for a fact that Matt doesn't make any real money from me, he will hardly take the time to let me pay him! About twice a year I pin him down and settle up. I never question the amount and always appreciate his expertise and patience. A good tip for describing the grade of log is to ask to see veneer rejects. Often, after the veneer buyer comes through, there is a nice layout of rejects just waiting for a chairmaker to come along and cut around the one blemish that caused it's rejection. If I plan ahead, I can schedule my needs to follow the veneer buyer and the sawyer is happy to get a near veneer price. I will be picking up a hard maple next week and plan to show some tips on safely moving and unloading logs.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Knife Grinding

One day while bouncing some ideas around the shop, Rich and I came up with this jig for holding drawknives while grinding. I have learned to grind freehand, a good skill to have but a difficult one to teach. It is also daunting for beginners, so this simple jig fits the bill.
The problem with grinding a drawknife is that it doesn't have a flat reference to ride on the tool rest. This jig, made up of two boards and a few rare earth magnets solve this problem by holding the knife by the only dependably flat face, the back. It allows the blade to float while the truly flat reference of the board rides on the tool rest. I use the jig with a pillow block setup that allows me better access to the grinding wheel than a standard grinder. There really isn't much to say about it, except that it works beautifully. If you aren't able to freehand a perfect 8" hollowgrind into your knife, it is well worth the ten minute investment to make.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


My posting about drawknives has to start with a disclaimer. People use, sharpen and prefer them in many different ways, and if you are at all like me, you'll want to try them all before settling on your own preference. Now I can talk about my own.
I use the drawknife bevel up and bevel down, in different situations. When I look to purchase a knife, I check the overall condition, look for rust pitting on the back, comfortable handles and a straight blade. I think that it is easier to create flat planes and facets with a flat blade, I pass on all distinctly curved blade knives. I also pass on any blades with a "knife edge", unless I am in the mood to put in a lot of work flattening the back. While in the Midwest, I was reminded how fortunate I am to live in a region where knives are widely available at junk shops and antique stores. I think that ebay has really levelled this playing field. Now, no store owner can hold a blades "rarity" over you, there a ten more just like it for sale at any given moment. My final rule is that I never pay more than $25 for a blade (ok, maybe $35 if it's amazing) and I never pass up a good knife for $15 (even though I already have ten).
So how do you tell the difference between a bevel up and a bevel down knife? If the back of the blade is parallel to the tangs that pass through the handles. then the knife is most comfortably used bevel down. If the blade is canted, the knife is best used bevel up. It should seem obvious when you hold the tool, your wrists should be relaxed and relatively straight, not contorted. In my experience, the bevel up blade is the most useful. It acts more like a splitting tool and follows the fibers of the wood more easily. I use the bevel down blade when I want to carve into the wood. I find that a bevel down blade can create a smooth surface regardless of whether it is following the fibers, this can be a difficult trait when the goal is to follow the fiber. This difference shouldn't be enough to stop you if you don't have one or the other, just get to it. Most knives that you will run across will be bevel down users, but can be easily adjusted by wrapping the blade with a wet rag (to avoid ruining the temper) and spot heating the steel between the blade and the handle with a torch. When it is cherry red simply readjust the handle to the desired position. I have adjusted many blades this way. I'll be posting about sharpening the different knives soon.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Before I had ever made my first chair, I looked to this book as a compass to help guide and inspire me. I first saw it on the shelf of a 1740's bed and breakfast that Sue and I used to visit outside of New Paltz, NY. We later got married in the living room of the B &B and I designed my house to approximate its warmth. I loved sitting in front of a fire, reading about how beams were hewn and then looking up to see the telltale chop marks on the beams overhead. A Museum of Early American Tools by Eric Sloane (available through Amazon etc...) isn't just a romantic view to the past. I think that for those interested in hand tool use, it clarifies the important relationship of between utility and simplicity. The beautifully rendered images of tools and their uses demonstrate the connection between the tools and the survival of those that wielded them. These folks weren't trying to be romantic, they were trying not to starve and freeze, and by doing so, they found remarkably elegant solutions to the problems they faced using simple tools and the materials at hand. Of course, most of us don't face these problems, but we are trying to have a relationship to the tools and materials that approximates this sense of self sufficiency and clarity. Anyone who has read my posts will notice that I rarely advise the purchase of anything, but to me, this little book is an essential, check it out.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Fine Time

As I promised, here is a shot of Chairnotes covergirl Sue Scott in front of Niagara Falls. We had a great time there before heading to Grand Rapids. My time at the Kendall College of Art and Design was inspiring. I met a very talented group of young artists and craftsmen. My hosts, Brent Skidmore, Cheryl Delores Hemmer and Stuart and Max pulled out all the stops to make Sue and I feel welcome and I look forward to seeing them in North Carolina this summer. When I embarked to make chairs for a living, I had no idea that it would bring so many new friends and interesting experiences. Now if can just kick this cold, maybe I could get some work done! More from the shop soon.
And a special congratulations to Tim Maddox on his graduation and fellowship grant winning work, way to keep out of trouble!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Chris' Chair

Here is Chris Durbin with his assembled chair. We had a fine week and I look forward to his return. This will be my last entry for about a week. I am going to speak to some classes at Ferris State College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sue and I are stopping at Niagra Falls for a short break. So please check back in next weekend for new posts and prepare yourself for some cheesy shots by the falls. Thanks to Brent Skidmore and Tim Maddox for the invitation to Michigan.

The False Miter

This is a sequence of photos that I took while carving a false miter joint on a rodback. The wood is cherry. The large block in this image is a remnant of the lathe that I rough trimmed on the bandsaw. Most of the shaping is done with a full sized drawknife. It takes a great deal of focus because there are few reference points to tell me where to stop, just careful observation of the shape as it forms.

Once the major shape is roughed in, I use carving tools and spokeshaves to make the shape flow into the rounds that lead into it. A cut with a V shaped carving to makes the false miter appear.

I had an interesting discussion with Chris Durbin (I'll be posting photos of his excellent work later) about risk in craftsmanship. One of the great advantage of hand tools is the immediacy and intensity of involvement that they offer, but it comes at a price. There is a learning curve and the potential for ruining the workpiece is often just one move away. This can force us to retreat to the safety of taking tiny cuts which is inefficient or even worse, stopping before achieving our goals for fear of ruining a piece. A painting mentor of mine used to encourage me to ruin my work rather than stop short. He said that by going past the line of a "good" painting and into a disaster, at least I'd learn where that line was. Alway stopping short leaves us holding our breath, working in fear. It is a difficult practice, one that may send one running for the certainty of a tablesaw and some sandpaper. I have messed up a lot of work. I'd hate to see the pile of chewed up turnings that I've made. But imagine an infant, unwilling to give up the stability of four limbs on the ground for two. Then think of the boldness of lifting one of the two off of the ground! We all know where this goes. So if, on occasion, the piece of wood in front of you has to be sacrificed, rest assured, it is not in vain, the next piece to take it's place will benefit in the hands of a more learned craftsman.

Friday, April 6, 2007

My Kiln

To folks unfamiliar with working green wood, this must look absurd! My kiln is nothing but an oversized E-Z bake oven. I built a simple table and lined the lower portion with 1" reflective celotex (the top holds my grinder and sharpening stones). I have three light fixtures inside and depending on the time of year, use various wattages to keep the temperature at 140 degrees at the TOP of the chamber (where I dry leg tenons). I adhere to the idea that the maximum temperature that the wood should experience is 140 degrees to avoid scorching it. The chamber is just large enough to fit my bending forms. There are probably better designed rigs out there, and I've been promising myself a redesign some day but this one works fine for me. At the top of the chamber are 5 holes that I slip my leg tenons into to selectively dry them. The fifth hole ensures that the moisture laden air has an exit when the other 4 are plugged with legs. When there are no legs in the top, I cover the opening to help contain the heat, once again, leaving a small gap for egress of air. Fire safety is a great concern and should be considered in constructing a kiln. I have isolated the light fixtures from direct contact with the celotex with bakelite sheets. Common sense should guide you, look for any scorching that may reveal dangerous conditions. I have used my kiln for 6 years (running almost continuously) with no problems. Experimentation is the key to learning to use your kiln, perhaps starting pieces drying with only one bulb on etc... Wood will always seek to equalize its moisture with the air around it. Our sense of mystery about this can be quickly dispelled by taking one piece from dead green to bone dry in just a few days. Once you give it a try, a whole new world of possibilities will open up to you.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Drying Out

One day while walking through my woods, I found something seemingly out of place amongst my ash, cherry and maples. The canopy in the woods must be about 70 feet high but growing only about 25 feet high is this little ironwood tree. You'll have to forgive my poor taxonomy skills, it may actually be something more specific, but to me ironwood is just right. It is as though this little tree is carved out of stone. It takes all of my weight to get a 2" branch to move at all. Tapping on the trunk is like tapping granite. It's like walking into a dog kennel and finding an elephant!
I've become very fond of this tree and visit it often (if you stop by, it's likely I'll drag you out to see it too).
When I told my mother that I was going to make chairs from green wood, she replied "Are you allowed to do that?" This sense of mystery surrounding moisture and wood runs deep even in the woodworking community. For an amazing account of the process and it's scientific side I highly recommend Bruce Hoadley's Understanding Wood. Indispensable. If you are drying planks, you will benefit greatly from the solid info there. For my needs in the shop, I rely on experience (having made many mistakes) and a lowtech understanding of how wood dries. Basically, I am always treading the line between rotting the wood and cracking it up.
The rule of thumb for drying planks is one year for each inch of thickness. This is a gross simplification, but it is enough to deter anyone interested in working with trees. Who wants to wait 2 years to get started. Half the reason we love woodworking is the instant gratification of results. This is enough to guide anyone down the path of kiln dried wood and the tools and techniques that follow. I think this is a shame because a slightly different approach can grant the spontaneity that we are seeking. Once the tree is cut down, the process of it equalizing moisture content with the air around it begins. If the process is too slow, it will rot. If the process is too fast, it will crack. One of the great reasons for working with a rot resistant wood like white oak is that I can keep it relatively moist for years and still have usable wood. Of course, sealing the end grain immediately will prevent excess moisture loss and checking on the ends of the log or boards or splits. By splitting the wood into small pieces, the moisture loss will occur relatively evenly and quickly, making the challenges of drying seem simple.
I like to think of the wood like bread. It only takes exposure to the air for a few hours for the outer layers of bread to begin to harden. Leave it overnight and it is downright stale, through and through. Now imagine taking the same piece of fresh bread and making toast. High heat will harden the outer layers dramatically and leave the inside soft. With wood, I want to make it stale, not toasted. This means that I try to err towards patience. Chair parts have a ratio of surface area to mass that almost eliminates worries about rotting and checking during air drying. I simply leave my pieces, once shaped and bent, sitting around the shop as long as I can. I don't rush green wood into the kiln, courting disaster. About 2 or 3 days sitting in the shop is enough to prep a green piece for the kiln. Then it is into the kiln at 140 degrees until the piece stops losing weight. Honestly, I never weigh the pieces. I simply judge by how well they hold the bends, and how light they feel. Extra time in the kiln is the rule, not the exception. My kiln is a simple affair and I will post its details tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007


Here is a picture of Chris Durbin carving his seat, I couldn't resist grabbing my camera when I saw that sunlight! His chair is moving along at a surprisingly rapid clip. Today we'll be making the rockers and turning our attention to the pieces coming out of the kiln. But it isn't his progress that I am thinking about right now.
I have been reading about a new tool that makes mortises for loose tenons. In other words, it will carve out a rectangular hole into which a separate piece of wood (purchased from the tool company of course) is glued. Loose tenons have been around for a long time, however, a simple hand tool that can cut a real mortise is new (really it's an improved biscuit joiner). There is a vast amount of promotion and discussion concerning the impact this tool will have. Some cry Ikea! while others shout back revolutionary!
It is no secret that I use mainly hand tools to make my living. However, I'd like to stress that it is not out of romance and I am not a Luddite. The way that I make my chairs is fast and efficient and most importantly offers me a structural advantage and design freedom that is essential to the quality of the product. I could stress all sorts of examples but the one that interests me the most is in the arena of design.
Often a process comes along that offers something so great that it takes a while to realize that there are limitations that it brings with it. Let's step away from woodworking for a moment for an example. Canned food. With the advent of metal canning, the preservation of food jumped light years. All of a sudden the potential for nourishment and enjoyment of food was no longer threatened by rapid spoilage. It saved lives. But when was the last time you went to the grocery store and did all of your shopping for a dinner party in the canned aisle. My point is that we haven't lost our taste for fresh food and its inherent advantages.
Back to designing with wood. As a cabinet maker, I learned that wood comes in sheet form or rough planks from the lumber yard. It MUST then be jointed and planed and ripped and formed by a series of tools, all oriented to this flatness. While there is amazing speed added to the production of cabinets and "flat" work by this process, every diversion into the round and curved creates added work. Often I see a design and wonder, how many steps away from the original plank the maker was willing to take? Look closely and you can still see the lumber. Trees know nothing of flat and square, and neither does the human form. Ever since I've learned to bypass the lumber yard and work with the tree, my imagination has not been hampered by the countless jigs and steps required to make flat boards fluid again. This simple freedom inspires me to make objects from trees.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

On Lighting

When I was moving into my new shop, I thought that I had hit the jackpot where light was concerned. Imagine after four years in a dark basement having ten windows and southern exposure. What I didn't realize is how much I'd learned about using light to my advantage in my darkened lair.
As I worked in such a light starved environment, I had to stage new lighting for any task that I wanted to see clearly. To do so, I took a hint from my days in photo school and set up a raking light. A raking light is merely a light that shines across a surface and reveals the surface quality and shape. The bottom photo is the raking light. It obviously highlights the details better than a light shining flat on the surface. The way that I like to work is dependent upon my eyes guiding my hands, clear visual information is vital to achieving good results. Taking the time to set up a raking light makes all the difference. I have a flexible light (thank you John) that I have mounted on my workbench at all times.
As a side note, raking light is a powerful a tool for photographing your work. Depending on what you are trying to depict, nothing describes 3-D space like a raking light. Experimentation is the key, and an easily movable light is helpful.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

On Process

The photo above shows the evolution of a spindle from a rough split to a (partially) rounded piece. The process begins with a drawknife, which follows the fibers and creates the shape before finishing with a spokeshave. This is vital to preserving the strength of the piece, but there is more to making good spindles. Developing a process and using your eyes to judge when you've arrived at each stage will create suprising results.
Imagine sitting down to make a set of spindles, picking up the first and completing it, then moving through the rest and completing each one as you go. How similar is the first one to the last? I have found that by working all of my spindles through each stage, before moving onto the next stage dramatically improves my consistency and speed. By focusing on a single task, such as squaring all of the splits, I can set very clear goals of quality and observation that improve as I move through the set. When I move onto the next stage, the order of the spindles will be shuffled and I will see them with fresh eyes. With this exagerrated focus on each stage, I give my sense of judgement a chance to develop.
Your eyes are powerful measuring tools, but only if you are asking very pointed questions. Is it square? Is one side thicker than the other? Does the piece taper evenly? By creating a set process and following it, you can pose the questions that will guide your eyes.
One of the observations that I've made and incorporated into my process, is the relative ease of sizing the spindle while octagonal in cross section versus round. A rounded spindle (actually having too many facets to count easily) is difficult to adjust and takes very careful observation and shaving. This excess time consumption has led me to leave the spindle as an octagon as long as possible, all the way through the drying process and beyond. When the octagonal spindle comes out of the kiln, it is a simple thing to shave the facets, which have shrunk unevenly, to a uniform octagon again. It is also easy to size the tenon ends by measuring from one facet to the opposing facet. After it has been shaved to shape and size, I can round it by shaving the corners of the facets and know that the spindle is near complete. This may seem insignifigant, but it is a real time saver and produces very uniform spindles. Most of chairmaking can be broken down this way, into a series of clearly defined goals. Once you have them in place, you really can just sit back and watch!

The Return of Spring, and Chris Durbin

The snow is gone and it's time to think about planting some grass around the new shop. I barely had time last fall to get the siding on and the landscaping was the least of my worries! Sue and I cleaned up the yard yesterday (amazed by how much junk the snow hides) and today she's offered to plant some grass while I work with Chris Durbin. Chris came last year to make a continuous arm and this time around will be tackling the combback rocker. I'll be posting his progress this week. The oddball looking dog in the photo is Rocket, anyone who has stopped by knows, you are his favorite person!